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"The Politics of Surrealism" by Helena Lewis

Updated on July 22, 2016
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Background info/Two Sentence Summary

A few years ago, I scoured Amazon for books on Surrealism in my quest to write a paper that never took off. As a result, I left a used hardback book behind in my already immense art history library.

As the title implies, author Helena Lewis looks at the political side of the Surrealist group, and their attempt to join the Communist Party.

The attempt failed.


Troubled Alliances

In this book, Lewis spun a tale of political ambition and upheavals that occurred during that strange era between World War One and World War Two, starting with poet André Breton ending Dada and codifying (him and others) the new Surrealist style. However, as Lewis reveals, Breton wanted to do more than just start a movement. He believed that this young ideology had a lot in common with Communism and Karl Marx's teachings. How, you possibly wonder? According to Breton's writings cited in the book, he wanted to bring pure freedom to artists and reign havoc on the upper classes (known in the book as the "Bourgeoisie"). Documenting the poet's goals and trials, Lewis would write of Breton trying to bring Surrealism into the Communist Party so he, and his band of (mostly literary) artists could explore these freedoms.

Beyond Trotsky's interest, the partnership lived on a shaky and tenuous foundation from beginning to end, for both groups spent most of their time infighting or backing terrible people. As a result of this, the proletariat, the people who needed the most help, ended up lost in the shuffle. So lost, even when Lewis writes of the Communists trying to do some activism with the Surrealists, it ended up backfiring due to disagreements over what a Surrealist should do under the Communist banner. Also, nobody knew when to compromise or respect a person's right to self-expression. This unresolved dilemma acted as an obstacle for every key player in this book.

On the Surrealists themselves? While she does not find them perfect, Lewis casts them in a better light than she does the Communists. While reading, I did find the Communists and some of their treatments of the Surrealists petty. Furthermore, she seems to make the case that the Surrealists did care about the Proletariat. In fact, she outright claims this at the book's conclusion. I think she convinced me, for at the beginning of the book, she writes (with sources backing her up) that Breton and others claimed that anyone could create Surrealist art.

Where's Dali?

For those wondering if Surrealism's most famous member who would overshadow Breton made an appearance, yes, Salvador Dali shows up. At first, he manages to do what Breton couldn't do: win over the Communists, but even that lasted only for a short time. Obviously not caring about the Communist goals, Lewis recounts Dali creating art that disturbed the group (and myself, if you wanted my opinion) and achieved the success that turned him into an icon.

In short, Dali did what Dali wanted to do, affecting everyone, and not caring about about the consequences. It's almost as if he did not even notice the Communists existed.

Saving Breton and Surrealism's race relations

This book does something else, it depicts André Breton in a sympathetic light. For as long as I have known about Surrealism, I have known him as one of the least liked people in art history. Here, Lewis writes him as an almost tragic figure who desperately wanted legitimacy for his Freudian influenced group. Alas, as he tried to make the Surrealists an artistic subgroup of the Communists, those same people either treats him with disdain or demand that he change his group to fit the Communist mold. Breton would fight against that, claiming that his group needed freedom to express themselves. As a response, he would lose friends to the Communists and find himself hindered by them.

At the end of the book, Lewis's redemption of Breton would come to full fruition. Make no mistake, she does not gloss over the negative side of his personality and opinions. In fact, she would hold nothing back when documenting his rather regressive views. Despite those problems, she does offer a nuanced portrayal of the man fighting against mistreatment done to him by the Communists and even his friends.

She does record the good works he did. After failing to put the Surrealists in full, equal partnership with the Communists, Breton would participate in other excursions, such as lectures in Haiti. While he gains a huge following as a result from his talks and a coup happened during his visit, Breton would refuse to take credit. Lewis points out that Surrealists spoke out against Colonialism and cited examples of Breton speaking vividly of the poor Haitian community. Very different from the man who ended art movements and tried to control his Surrealist flock. In the classes I've had, Breton received a bad rap for good reason, but in this book, Lewis redeems him.

At the start of the book, we see Breton destroying Dada with his personality, but by the end, he found himself humbled and obscured by people more powerful than him. You could make a play out of this man's life.

Regarding the first sentence of the last paragraph, I realized I made that same observation in my notes for that Surrealist paper that never came to fruition.

But does it have art history?

The book focuses less on art history and more on the power plays between the two groups. Artistic mediums beyond poetry and manifestos receive only a little attention. Communists did take interest in art, for they enjoyed the films by Salvador Dali and Luis Buñuel. To the horror of others, they would also enjoy the Socialist Realism that would come out of Stalinist Russia. On the visual side, the book gives black and white photographs of the Surrealist members, including portraits of Breton that you can describe as "quirky" and/or "amusing"

Lewis' writing does veer from dry facts to invigorating depictions of rivalries that will leave you in disbelief over the fighting. Overall, I enjoyed the book, but I did come across some errors, such as the misspelling of the word "emergence". Lastly, the index at the back of the book should have given more page numbers to help guide the reader to the subject they were looking for.

Afterword

While it did not take forever for me to write this, I still read this out to other people so I could hear their critique and advice. Also had to ask for advice from a former professor.

Purchase the book here

Update 7-23-2016

I removed a sentence (didn't feel right when I thought about it) and a link that I had no idea why I put it there. I also tweaked a sentence.

© 2015 Catherine

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    • cholt profile image
      Author

      Catherine 2 years ago

      I looked it up, and the food does sound tasty.

    • grand old lady profile image

      Mona Sabalones Gonzalez 2 years ago from Philippines

      Oh, looks like I have to read Lewis' book. I'm not sure if the cafe was named after Andre Breton, but it does serve great food:)

    • cholt profile image
      Author

      Catherine 2 years ago

      Thank you for the comment! Anyway, interesting to learn about the cafe. Did the owners intend to reference Andre Breton?

      On the Party's fears, Lewis does address that in the book. She said that the party considered the connection between the Surrealists and the Communists too shallow. And Dali? I think (according to Lewis) he did Surrealist work beforehand he officially joined the party.

    • grand old lady profile image

      Mona Sabalones Gonzalez 2 years ago from Philippines

      I know it sounds glib, but FINALLY I know there is a person behind Cafe Breton, which is a restaurant in the Philippines. Interesting to know that the surrealistic movement tried to join arms with the communist party. I think the CP might have foreseen the danger of an eventual turn to hidden pro capitalist meanings in the art form. It was also interesting to learn that Salvador Dali originated from this movement.